Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.

A sign of the times: Napa law firm launches cannabis practice

Erin Carlstrom

Erin Carlstrom is senior counsel with Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty leading the cannabis division by helping clients navigate the regulatory and compliance process.

Napa’s largest law firm, Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty, has made a name for itself serving the legal needs of the wine industry.

Now it plans to do the same with another controlled substance – cannabis.

Earlier this month, DP&F announced the official launch of its cannabis practice group, based in Santa Rosa. This group now offers a specialized, full-service approach to serving the business needs of clients navigating California’s complex cannabis industry.

The news of a law firm getting involved with the cannabis industry might sound surprising, but it’s a good fit for the firm, said representatives.

“Every day, DP&F attorneys serve clients who operate in highly regulated industries,” said Carol Kingery Ritter, one of the firm’s managing partners.

“We are experts in the alcohol beverage industry and given the breadth and depth of our practice, we are set up to serve the cannabis industry seamlessly,” Kingery Ritter said.

“Ultimately cannabis is an ag product,” Kingery Ritter said.

“It wasn’t a far stretch to think about taking our skills and applying it to another ag product that is having a real impact on the economy of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties.”

“We’re in a whole new world,” said Erin Carlstrom, senior counsel, who leads the DP&F cannabis practice group based out of its Santa Rosa office. She joined DP&F about a month ago.

“This is real industry that deserves a sophisticated response from the professionals that serve it and a robust conversation in every community,” said Carlstrom.

Carlstrom worked in cannabis compliance and land use at her previous firm, specializing in government relations and permitting.

She has ushered statewide clients through major projects, from incorporation to operations, and has been responsible for obtaining entitlements all over California.

For now, the DP&F cannabis practice remains based in Santa Rosa, and for a specific reason.

“We’re not trying to compete with the wine industry in Napa,” said Kingery Ritter.

“We’re a wine law firm. That’s our bread and butter. That’s what we’re going to continue to do. But there is an opportunity with the cannabis industry because there are so many similarities in legal needs.”

“Napa is rightfully very proud and proactive of its wine (reputation), said Carlstrom. “There is no intention from DP&F to ignore the importance of that reputation.”

Kingery Ritter said even though the firm opened a cannabis practice, “We don’t want to take away from the core values and reputation of the Napa office.”

“But we think there’s an opportunity to serve the market in Sonoma County,” said Kingery Ritter. “It’s not very often that a product comes out of prohibition and we know a lot about how wine is treated from that lens,” she said.

“From what we can tell, we don’t think the cannabis industry is going away,” Kingery Ritter said. “We expect the cannabis industry will need lawyers in the same way the wine industry needs lawyers.”

At the same time, “We’re not trying to push an agenda or lobby or advocate,” for the cannabis industry, Kingery Ritter said.

In fact, “Unless Napa County decides that allowing a regulated cannabis industry, in some form,” there could be no legal work to do in the area of cannabis in Napa, Kingery Ritter said.

Carlstrom said one of the biggest misconceptions is presumptions about cannabis operators or farmers.

“There are operators that did bad things,” such as diverting water, causing pollution or tearing down hillsides. However, “The people I work with are ardent environmentalists and care about the earth and their patients.”

Carlstrom said that one of the issues with cannabis today is while it is now legal in California to grow, consume, dispense and distribute cannabis, the federal government says none of that is legal.

“But these operators deserve to have quality legal representation,” she said.

In 50 years, “we will look back on this period of time much like following the end of Prohibition,” predicted Carlstrom. Decades from now, cannabis could become just another regulated crop.

Carlstrom said she can help clients negotiate with investors or become investors themselves. Others want help navigating permitting. “They want to know how to protect their brands,” with intellectual property. They deal with employment issues.

“As they become fully legitimate, they are subject to all labor and employment regulations — all of the things any normal traditional business would have to face,” said Carlstrom.

Ryan Lowther works in the cannabis practice at Farella Braun & Martel LLP. The law firm is based in San Francisco but has an office in St. Helena. The firm created its cannabis practice about four years ago, he said.

“We decided to get into the industry because we saw a lot of parallels with our wine industry practice,” said Lowther. “Both are highly regulated, and we saw a lot of opportunity in the market.”

“I think it’s a good development” that DP&F has created its own cannabis practice, he said.

“There’s a lot of need for sophisticated counsel. The more lawyers that start helping clients in the industry, the better. It helps to legitimize and grow the industry.”

The Farella cannabis practice has grown significantly, said Lowther.

“We started with a few clients and now represent clients in all facets of the industry, from cultivators, dispensaries, testing facilities, distributors and manufacturers,” said Lowther.

“And we represent a lot of clients that are working within the industry but don’t necessarily touch the plant. Those could include investors, software businesses, media companies and other traditional businesses that are looking for ways to interact with the cannabis industry.”

Most of the cannabis practice work is done in San Francisco, he said.

“We have had some clients in Napa talk to us about cultivation or some real estate plays but we haven’t had a lot of deals close in Napa.”

“I don’t know if that’s because the regulations up there are in flux,” compared to Sonoma County.

Lowther said he thinks that in the future more legal firms will add a cannabis practice. “It’s a growing industry,” he said. “It’s only going to get bigger.”

It’s unclear which other major Napa law firms offer cannabis industry legal services.

Pop the cork on Napa Valley wine!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Business Editor

Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News